The climate crisis must reunite America — and yes, that could happen

American history should teach us to be optimistic even in dark times. In my 90 years, I've seen it happen myself

Published February 17, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Climate change and environmental disasters (Getty Images/Roy Scott)
Climate change and environmental disasters (Getty Images/Roy Scott)

The poet Friedrich Hölderlin once wrote, "Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst / Das Rettende auch" — "Where danger is, grows also what will save us." I take these words as a key to escaping the toxic divisiveness that presently darkens our politics. Jared Diamond, in his new book "Upheaval," writes that the greatest and "most ominous of the fundamental problems now threatening American democracy [is] our accelerating deterioration of political compromise." 

But there is a still greater danger, about which Washington is mostly silent, and that is the "state of planetary emergency" of which climate scientists are warning us. That threat is so grave that, when this country is forced to recognize it, it may also, as in the past, unite behind a solution.

I am probably thought of as a political critic of America, not as a cultural defender of it. But I have always been a defender of American culture. It is precisely because there is so much to cherish in this country that attention to its defects is possible, normal and important. This was and remains America's greatest strength. A big reason the Communist governments of Eastern Europe failed was their inability to foster and respond to movements for constructive change. That is still China's great problem today.

At the base of today's hatred is political fear, and the first step towards reducing this political fear is to recognize America's exceptional social and moral strength, including its proven strength in responding to its admittedly great problems. But most current opinion-shapers, including those on TV I most listen to myself, are not calming those fears; they are intensifying them. Here is a not atypical headline last month on a political website, speaking of Sen. Mitch McConnell's announced intention to coordinate his tactics on impeachment with the White House: "We're witnessing the death of the democratic process right before our eyes."

But some of us remember the McCarthy era in the 1950s, and how America shivered in what Justice William O. Douglas then called a "Black Silence of Fear." Similar fears were voiced at the time of Watergate in the 1970s. So let's for a moment match this dangerous pessimism with a minute or two of undiluted optimism.

The American Revolution's legacy: The rule of law, and a dream

Many Americans are reluctant to speak of American exceptionalism; but it is easy for me, because I am a Canadian. And as I wrote in "The American Deep State," "I believe in American exceptionalism, and that at one time America was truly exceptional in its unprecedented replacement of authoritarian with limited constitutional government."

I see the American Revolution as a pivotal moment, not just in American history, but in the history of Europe and ultimately the world. It was a milestone in the consolidation of the principle, now widely accepted, that we should be ruled by laws, not by men. 

The founding fathers were mindful of this principle when, after serious debate, they added an impeachment clause to the Constitution. The language they used was taken from English law, but with a major difference. Judges in England could be impeached, but not the king. For the English sovereign was regarded as source and not subject of the law, following the Roman rule established by Ulpian in the third century CE: quod principi placuit legis habet vicem ("Whatever pleases the ruler has the force of law").

The U.S. Constitution was the world's "first complete written national constitution," Today, since World War II, "almost all democratic governments now have written constitutions." For whatever it's worth, even undemocratic nations, like Russia, China and North Korea, also have written constitutions.

But the American Revolution also strengthened more than the rule of law. Unlike Chinese and Judaic law, American legal theory distinguishes between law and morality. But as Raymond Wacks writes:

The legal positivist's quest for a value-free account of law is countered by the naturalist's more plausible claim that this account neglects the very essence of law – its morality – that "the act of positing law … can and should be guided by 'moral' principles."

Thus law in America has not been static, but over the years has struggled towards narrowing the gap between what law is, and what it should be. For the American Revolution also helped consolidate an age-old dream of liberation. Rousseau's "Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains" was answered by the opening of the Declaration of Independence: "All men are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." 

This noble ideal was echoed in the French Declaration of Human Rights of 1789, drafted in consultation with Jefferson. It was also echoed in the poetry of Friedrich Schiller, almost literally in his drama of liberation "Wilhelm Tell" (1804), and also in his "Ode to Joy" that Beethoven set to music in his Ninth Symphony: 

Joy! A spark of fire from heaven,
Daughter from Elysium ...
All men will emerge as brothers,
Where you rest your gentle wings

The "spark of fire" taken from the American Revolution and Schiller ignited the movement of Young Europe, with its visions of democratic unity, That movement was defeated in the People's Spring of 1848, but led after the First World War to the end of Europe's four great continental empires: Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey. 

Why is this relevant to our crisis? Because if we take this long view of history, I believe we can see that history at a deep level has slowly been evolving towards a more open and just society, just as most of us naturally evolve from squalling infants to become more reasonable adults. 

Consider that after World War II the democratic kingdoms of Europe – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands — were spared, but the undemocratic kingdoms — Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy — were all gone.  All these changes were not coincidental, but responsive, I believe, to some deep strain in history itself.

As a poet, I would like to venture that history ultimately gets written the same way that deep poetry gets written: that is — as Dante said of the poets of the sweet new style — "according to what the heart dictates."

Revolution as a product of social persuasion, not violence

These two elements of the American Revolution, the sovereignty of law and the dream of liberty, vitalize each other. Where an equilibrium between them is not established, as in the French and Soviet revolutions, the results can be both disastrous and ephemeral. 

What stabilizes these two elements in America is a third element, just as important for today but far less recognized. I am referring to the collective social process which produced the revolution and was strengthened by it. 

Many historians, and more ominously many militia movements, regard the revolution as the successful war against England. But this focus on violence, rather than ideas and persuasion, was energetically rejected by John Adams, in a letter he wrote in 1815 to Thomas Jefferson:

What do We mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.

Adams then explained that he was referring to "the Steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the Authority of Parliament over the Colonies." 

In my book "The Road to 9/11," following Jonathan Schell's masterful work "The Unconquerable World," I paired this quote with a long one from Adam Michnik, who was a leader of the Solidarity movement which successfully and nonviolently expelled the world's largest army from Poland less than 40 years ago. Asking how "Poland's peaceful transformation" from the Soviet Union was possible, Michnik explained, "It was preceded by an almost two-decade effort to build institutions of civil society." (Zbigniew Bujak, another Solidarity leader, once said publicly: "The American ideals of human rights are exactly the same as those of Solidarity.")

Scholarly histories, working with the hard evidence of documents, once tended to focus more about problems of leadership from the top down than about responses in civil society from the bottom up. In college I was required to read "The Anatomy of Revolution" by Harvard professor Crane Brinton, a book that is still taught. In what was very much a top-down perspective, Brinton looked at the similarities between four revolutions: the English of the 1640s, the American, the French and the Russian. 

And in all four, Brinton summarized the revolutionary process as moving from:

financial breakdown, [to] organization of the discontented to remedy this breakdown ... revolutionary demands on the part of these organized discontented, demands which if granted would mean the virtual abdication of those governing, attempted use of force by the government, its failure, and the attainment of power by the revolutionists.

But the spirit of the American Revolution, as John Adams observed, emerged before the financial crisis that produced the Stamp Act of 1765. Even the development he wrote of, of an improbable political consensus between Puritans and slave-owners, was not the first step. 

That consensus has since been attributed by historians to an earlier and even more universal social development, the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s.

Along with anti-authoritarian principles, the First Great Awakening fostered strong millennial hopes across the entirety of the colonies. Seeing themselves as actors on the stage of salvation history, revivalists understood themselves to be playing a pivotal role in bringing about the Second Coming of Christ. … Jonathan Edwards was optimistic that the revivals were the dawning of God's final plans for the earth, a defining moment for America within salvation history….  Likewise, Rev. Josiah Smith boasted in a sermon in 1740 from Charleston, South Carolina, "Behold! … Some great things seem to be upon the anvil, some big prophecy at the birth; God give it strength to bring forth!

This tide of millennial excitement was of course not an American innovation; on the contrary, similar outbursts had periodically energized European history for two thousand years. But it importantly created among Americans a widespread expectation for, and acceptance of, necessary change.

As I wrote in "The Road to 9/11":

In the background of both revolutions [the American and the Polish] lies the emergence of Western civilization from one of the most successful of all alternative civil societies: the early Christian church. 

These two revolutions were moments in the fundamental process of civilization itself, as envisioned by Hannah Arendt and Jonathan Schell: a process of moving from mere force of violence towards institutionalized powers of persuasion.

What was new in the American and Polish Revolutions — and is still inspiring —was the conversion of social dreams into movements that could defeat the armies of the king in 1783, and the Soviet Union in 1989. And this truth of the American Revolution was also true of the abolition of slavery. The abolitionist movement was abetted in large part by the widespread moral fervor of the Second Great Awakening (circa 1790-1840s). This social movement set in motion the dynamics of a political response: first the new Republican Party, then the Civil War and finally Emancipation.

The strength of American social momentum today

Great Awakenings by that name are no longer fashionable. But the great social momentum of the Revolution and abolitionism has survived, and is still with us. It spilled over into later related movements: such as for women's suffrage (successful in 1918-19), and Prohibition (enacted into law from 1920 to 1933). As Prof. Barry Hankins has observed, "Typically, from the Second Great Awakening to the present, when Americans see a social problem, their impulse is to band together in a voluntary society and fix it." This impulse is found increasingly around the world, but its strength in America derives from its successful track record.

America's dynamic momentum, an invaluable social asset, is still very much with us. The civil rights movement was initially a product of the black churches that grew out of the Second Great Awakening. And from that movement soon emerged what became the nationwide anti-Vietnam War movement, with churches, both black and white, playing a significant role in both. 

The importance of these movements' inherited values (shared in America by both theists and atheists) can be seen by the contrast in 1968 between the radical protest movements in America and the failed Paris uprising in France. The civil rights and anti-war movement were largely in support of traditional values, while the ideology of the Paris uprising was essentially nihilist – as expressed by its slogan, "Il est interdit d'interdire" ("It is forbidden to forbid").

The historic role of fear in American politics 

So far I have focused uniquely on the achievements, in the messy context of politics, of what might be called faith, hope and an altruistic love of humanity. But of course, this cursory account of U.S. history is very one-sided. History may ultimately follow "what the heart dictates," but what the heart dictates is not always good.

We are all very aware that American politics are energized by fear and hatred, as well as by hope and love. Indeed, if we turn our eyes to the current political brawl in Congress and the media, it might seem that in recent years fear and hate have become the predominating forces.

Democrats argue, with conviction, that they had no choice but to impeach the president, because failure to do so might deal a fatal blow to America's system of constitutional checks and balances. Republicans, on the other hand, say that conviction of this president would have set a precedent that effectively converted America from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government.

If we look only at the political factors in this decision, both of these antithetical arguments, paradoxically, have merit. But to see this leads directly to the main point I want to make. As a first step to healing this country, we must stop focusing too narrowly on day-to-day political issues, and think instead of larger ones. 

The founding fathers wanted limited government; they got it, and along with limited government they got limited politics. But the great strength of America is its social culture, of which its political culture is only a little part, a constitutionally limited part. So let me paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt and say, "As a first step, stop being so fearful. The first thing we have to fear is political fear itself."

The American political scene today, which has been called everything from a madhouse to a cesspool, is indeed increasingly dominated by fear and hatred. Unfortunately, this is true not just of those in Congress, but also of those in the media, especially with the rise of cable TV channels with their separate siloed audiences in their separate siloed realities.

But fear and hatred have repeatedly dominated American politics, going back to at least the presidency of John Adams. This was a period of suspicion that the French were meddling in U.S. domestic politics (including a rumor, quite possibly true, that a Frenchman had helped foment the Virginia slave revolt of 1800).

Finally John Adams, sick and tired of being accused of treason by Jeffersonians, persuaded the Federalist Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Alien Friends Act temporarily allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous. The Sedition Act criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government. The Jeffersonian journalist James Callender, after calling Adams a "repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor," was fined and sentenced to nine months in jail.

After such rhetoric and retaliation, one might have thought that comity and consensus might never be recovered in American politics. But the two acts in question expired after Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party were swept into power in 1800. The American political process staggered on, even after the killing of Hamilton in 1804. And as we saw, Adams and Jefferson, when both were retired, and with adequate distance between them, engaged for two more decades in the most elegant epistolary friendship in American history.

The debates in Congress leading up to the Civil War were no less vitriolic. One abolitionist, George Thompson, cancelled his attendance at a meeting in puritanical Boston, after he was warned that there were plans for him to be tarred and feathered. His replacement, William Lloyd Garrison, was then dragged him through the streets by a rope, amid a crowd that threatened to kill him." Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, was beaten almost to death on the Senate floor by a pro-slavery congressman from South Carolina. 

The hostilities of the ensuing Civil War, with more than 600,000 deaths, took over a decade to abate. But in 1876 an impasse in the Electoral College led to a dubious quid pro quo. Southern Democrats agreed to the election of a Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, as president. The Republicans in exchange agreed to withdraw federal troops from the south. This ended Reconstruction and condemned blacks to another century of oppression under Jim Crow laws. The deal was very ugly, but it did achieve a consensus.  

In other words, our present crisis of disunity is not at all unprecedented. On the contrary, it is just one more eruption from a deep magma of divisions that have always been in this country, and have always resulted in ugly compromises.

America's recent history of surviving disunity

Think of the last great division in this country, in the 1960s and 1970s. I don't want to sound complacent for a moment about the recent rise in mass shootings. But think back to 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to major rioting and arson in 110 cities, and the biggest domestic deployment of the U.S. Army since the Civil War. A year before that, in 1967, there were uprisings and riots in more than 150 cities, with at least 83 people dead, and the National Guard deployed in at least 12 states. 

Yet by the 1980s America was relatively calm. How did this happen? Jared Diamond points to the political relationship between Republican President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill:

Both men were skilled politicians, strong personalities, and opposite to each other in their political philosophies and in many or most questions of policy…. Nevertheless they treated each other with respect, acknowledged each other's constitutional authority, and played by the rules.

What Diamond points to is both true and important. Yet Reagan's political change from his earlier firebrand rhetoric, when running for the governorship of California in the 1960s, exemplifies for me a still greater social truth. Both Reagan and O'Neill were indeed skilled politicians, and from this skill both knew that the mood of the nation had changed. By the 1980s most people (like myself) now wanted reconciliation, not yet another decade of conflict.

The dialectics of that change of mood are instructive. During Reagan's 1966 campaign to become governor of California, many like myself on the left thought of him as many think today of Trump, as a vulgar TV personality, exploiting fear and prejudice to defeat the forces of sanity.  And early in his campaign, he did say, "If you ask me, the activities of those Vietnam Day teach-in people can be summed up in three words: Sex, Drugs and Treason."

But I failed then to see how the anti-war movement, with its slogan of "Never trust anyone over 30," was already not as sane as I still wanted to think. And by the end of his campaign Reagan had edged away from fully endorsing the slogan "Sex, drugs and treason." His speeches now reflected the growing mood for calm in the country, with statements like "morality is the main issue of the campaign."

In other words, the initial morality of the anti-war movement, soon increasingly veering into violence, was now being opposed by a rising counter-morality. (Our situation today, with the evangelical churches now divided over Trump, is not dissimilar.)

(I still resent Reagan's tax cuts, which helped launch America towards increasing disparity of wealth and income. But I have to acknowledge that Reagan's surprise agreement to freeze emission levels of nitrogen oxide was crucial in resolving what then looked like an urgent but  hopeless environmental crisis: the problem of acid rain.)

America's democratic strength is social as well as political

These anecdotal glimpses of U.S. history support my belief that for democracy to work, the actions of government are less important than inspiration and guidance from below. Democracy is interactional. Leaders give direction to the system from above when complex solutions are called for. 

But on big simple issues leadership usually begins from below — never from the entire people (Rousseau's dangerous myth of the "general will") — but from those committed people in society, always a minority, who from their convictions are energetically united in a strong moral cause. 

These people of dedication are at first usually opposed both by those in authority and by the people at large. In 1970, for example, when four students were shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State University, protests immediately erupted at 850 campuses across the entire nation. Yet in a Gallup poll taken shortly afterward, 58%  of respondents approved of the shootings. But today those in law enforcement are trained not to repeat the guardsmen's act.

Taking a lead from what Adams wrote to Jefferson, we can say that the greatness of America has always come chiefly from below, and a solution to our present crisis will most likely come yet again from below.

Our most urgent concern today: Not impeachment, but climate change 

Movements from below are not always right, for intensity of belief does not bestow infallibility. Especially in America, there have been any number of divisive issues, such as the abortion issue, with decent people of good faith on both sides. Another such issue was Prohibition, and Prohibition's failure to produce consensus soon led to its repeal.

But today nearly all dedicated people are already united behind one cause: for measures to deal with climate change. The science underlying the climate issue is no longer seriously debatable. The European Union's climate monitor has just pronounced the last five years to have been the hottest on record, just like the last decade.

Last November more than 11,000 scientists from around the world declared "clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency." They called for an "immense increase of scale in endeavors … to avoid untold suffering." 

Especially worrisome are potential irreversible climate tipping points and nature's reinforcing feedbacks . . . that could lead to a catastrophic 'hothouse Earth,' well beyond the control of humans.

If America truly were a functioning democracy, those endeavors would now be being implemented.  According to the New York Times, "Americans overwhelmingly believe that global warming is happening, and that carbon emissions should be scaled back." About 75 percent of Americans support regulating CO2, while "In every congressional district, a majority of adults supports limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants." This is an encouraging change from just seven years earlier, when Americans felt that climate change ranked dead last out of 21 issues as a domestic governmental priority.

The climate movement has done a good job of persuading the people, but unprecedented amounts of cash have been raised to combat it politically. This has come from the coalition Ted Roszak warned us of a decade ago: the corporate elite, the (well-funded) neoconservative intelligentsia, and the fundamentalist churches. This is the same coalition that helped elect Trump in 2016. But there are signs that, among the churches at least, their opposition to climate measures may be diminishing.

At present, the political system is still in the clutches of the well-funded climate change counter-movement, funded chiefly by greedy fossil fuel interests like the Koch brothers and Exxon Mobil. According to Scientific American, the counter-movement's foundations "funneled $558 million to almost 100 climate denial organizations from 2003 to 2010." And Trump's electoral campaign was chiefly funded by climate-change deniers Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who "spent more than $16 million to support his candidacy and his inauguration."

America's real domestic threat: The war on science

The most serious war being fought today in American politics is not the fighting between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. It is the War on Science that has been waged for decades between searchers for truth on the one hand and American superwealth, both personal and corporate, on the other.

Here, the issue, as in the Scopes evolution trial of 1925, is not whether science will win, but when. The social momentum that won against DDT and the tobacco industry will eventually force an energy revolution as well. 

It is much less clear whether these changes will occur in time to preserve anything like the climate we are accustomed to. Many who abstractly endorse the need for climate measures, especially politicians,  will recoil when it comes to seriously raising the price of gas. 

But the dedicated social momentum for change is still with us. Let us hope that the need to deal with our climate will in time produce a consensus through compromise, one that will diminish and replace the dissensus and political jousting that have led to Trump and his policies. Let us hope also that this trend will be reinforced, as Ted Roszak predicted, by the growth of this consensus in the world as a whole.

I expect the energy for that reorientation to come primarily from younger people. But perhaps they will be joined by those of us who can remember the great satisfaction that can come from participating in what Gandhi, and later Martin Luther King Jr., called satyagraha or "truth-force" — the energy, and excitement, of working in solidarity for a more decent world.

America of course has many grave problems, and there is no panacea for any of them. But the issue of climate is so grave that its solution must deal with other grave problems as well. One is the absurd vulnerability of our political processes to the influence of unprincipled money, a scandal which favors the election of unprincipled cynics to a Congress that has become what the late political scientist Chalmers Johnson called "a forum for special interests." 

And this unprincipled money comes in large part from the disparity of wealth in this country. We are in a new Gilded Age, as much a threat to democracy today as the first Gilded Age was in the late 1800s, until it was partially addressed by the income tax and other progressive reforms under both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.

Another major related problem is that of America's bloated defense budget. This is now an international as well as a domestic threat to stability, as resources needed to promote a healthier world order and domestic tranquility are instead diverted into ill-considered and counterproductive interventions. But dealing with climate, to be successful, will necessitate a friendlier American approach to the rest of the world.

Let me return to where I began. I believe that the hatred so widespread in contemporary America arises from fears for this country that are wildly exaggerated. I myself detest and fear the militaristic policies of this country, but not the country itself. 

In short, let us, in the spirit of Hannah Arendt and Jonathan Schell, focus less on the divisive issues that Congress is handling, and more on the potentially unifying issues that Congress should be handling.

I am 90 years old. My politics were shaped in the '60s. And

Deep in my heart, I [still] believe
We shall overcome some day.


By Peter Dale Scott

Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is a poet, writer and researcher. His recent political books include "Deep Politics and the Death of JFK" (1993), "The Road to 9/11" (2007), "The War Conspiracy" (2008), "American War Machine" (2010) and "The American Deep State" (2017).

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